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Heel Tough Blog: Florida A&M Preview

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Saturday in Kenan Stadium was expected to be a joyous kickoff to the 2022 season in Chapel Hill for both Carolina and Florida A&M heading into Friday, but was sent into turmoil when it was announced that the Rattlers had 20 players ineligible and the game was in jeopardy of not even being played. The good news for Tar Heel fans is that the game will still be played, but Florida A&M will be extremely short handed without what is expect to be some of their top players. We get you ready for the squad that the Tar Heels will face later tonight in Kenan Stadium.

Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

This 2022 Tar Heel team may not be receiving the preseason hype that last year’s team did, but on paper, this is a team that is better than a year ago.

Offensively, there are questions, but the good news is the answers don’t seem that far off. Redshirt freshman Drake Maye was named as the official replacement for Sam Howell earlier this week and looks like he will get a legitimate shot to prove himself on Saturday night. Behind him, sophomore Jacolby Criswell is a guy that Mack Brown has said is more than capable of handling the job, as well, and is someone that the team could pivot to at any point of the season if Maye was to struggle. The backfield has a lot of unknowns outside of the quarterback spot with Ty Chandler’s departure and British Brooks’ season over due to a lower leg injury. Junior D.J. Jones is going to be counted on to step up for the team, something that it seems like the staff feels confident in his ability to do, while the rest of the unit that has very little to no experience matures. The hope for many is that the true freshman duo of George Pettaway and Omarion Hampton can catch on quickly and begin their reign as one of the up-and-coming running back pairs in the country. The receiver has an injury of their own that they have to navigate early on with Antoine Green out until at least the fourth week of the season recovering from a collarbone injury. Josh Downs is coming off of a record-setting sophomore and will enter the season as the only proven quantity in this room right now. The hope is that he can produce at a high level once again this season and that other options around him in the room can emerge swiftly. Redshirt freshman Gavin Blackwell had a really strong fall camp and looks like a trusted target for Maye already, while sophomore J.J. Jones looks to emerge as that deep threat on the outside. Don’t sleep on true freshman Andre Greene Jr. who has already opened a lot of eyes in fall camp and could be the guy that the team needs to win more 50/50 balls this season, especially in the red zone. The fact that the team will have three tight ends, Kamari Morales, John Copenhaver and Bryson Nesbit, that they feel comfortable with playing at any time is also a huge boost for this offense and its young quarterback. There is optimism around the offensive line after a brutal 2021 season from the unit. New coach Jack Bicknell Jr. is leading the way for a unit that will be anchored by a strong left side of senior tackle Asim Richards and senior guard Ed Montilus. They combine with the man in the middle, Corey Gaynor, a graduate transfer from Miami who will a team captain after just arriving on campus this spring, to form a threesome that instills a lot of confidence. The other two starting jobs are up in the air at this point, but the good news is that senior William Barnes looks like he will be ready to be a major contributor somewhere and sophomore Jonathan Adorno is ready to make a more consistent impact. Harvard transfer Spencer Rolland is also in the mix there and is right in the thick of the battle to start at right tackle, a spot where he thrived in his time with the Crimson.

Defensively, there is a renewed sense of belief with the return of Gene Chizik and Charlton Warren to Chapel Hill, two guys who had a lot of success in their first stints here. It also doesn’t hurt that this defense is as loaded with talent as it has been since Butch Davis left campus back in 2011. Up front, this might be the deepest that the Tar Heels have ever been just in terms of pure talent and now it's about turning that talent into production. Junior Myles Murphy is on a lot of national radars as someone that breakout and have a monster 2022 season, while fellow junior Des Evans looks to finally be able to produce in a role that fits him much better than the one that he was in over the last couple of season. Graduate senior Raymond Vohasek is back as well to provide some leadership to this unit that at the point feels pretty confident about fielding a three deep across the board without much drop off. At linebacker, the depth and experience are a little thin, but the expectations are not. Junior Cedric Gray is back and will look to build off of his very nice 2021 season, while second-year guys, Power Echols and RaRa Dillworth, look ready to take on significant roles this season. True freshman Sebastian Cheeks is another name on the rise who could factor in here as well before the season is over. The defensive backfield has plenty of talent, as well, but they simply need to be more consistent than a year, especially at safety. Junior Tony Grimes is another name that national folks think is set up for a big season, especially if he can get help from that defensive line. Junior Storm Duck heads into the season fully healthy and will be a significant part of the equation at either outside corner or in the nickelback role. Redshirt freshman Dontae Balfour has emerged this offseason as someone who could start on the outside opposite of Grimes and he will, at the least, start the season out as a rotational player that is more than capable of handling himself out there. Sophomore Ohio State Lejond Cavazos will also be a major factor out there once he is back healthy from an injury that has cost him the bulk of fall camp. At safety, junior Ja’Qurious Conley will be out to begin the season recovering from the lower body injury that cost him the last two games of the season last year. That leaves the senior trio of Cam’Ron Kelly, Giovanni Biggers and Don Chapman to handle it at least until he can get back. Communication was a big issue for these three a year ago, but the hope is that this new staff can correct that and allow this unit to become more consistent.

The Tar Heels special teams unit saw plenty of battles throughout fall camp, as they try to take a step forward under their third different coordinator in four seasons. Sophomore Noah Burnette will take over at placekicker for the graduated Grayson Atkins looking to provide some stability for a unit that is tied for the most missed field goals for an FBS team since 2016. Senior punter Ben Kiernan held off the challenge from redshirt freshman Connor Maynard and will handle the punting duties again this season, while Josh Downs will be back and hoping to better his success as a punt returner. Kick returner is still a big mystery at this point, but it looks like Omarion Hampton and fellow running back Caleb Hood will be the guys that will get the first crack at it.

Florida A&M

The Rattlers will be extremely short handed when they take the field in Chapel Hill tomorrow. According to Alison Posey of ABC 27 in Tallahassee, the team will be missing 20 players tomorrow due to either academic or transfer eligibility. The Rattlers are coming off of a 9-3 season in 2021 where they return to the FCS playoffs for the first time in 20 years. They are a talented FCS squad who did their work in the transfer portal this offseason to try to build this roster up once again as they make a push for their third consecutive nine win season. Starting quarterback Rasean McKay returns after a strong junior season, but the team announced on Wednesday that Vanderbilt transfer Jeremy Moussa will get the start on Saturday. He will have a talented running back group at his side led by Pittsburgh transfer A.J. Davis and incumbents Terrell Jennings and Jaylen McCloud who will try to replace the production left behind by Bishop Bennett, who had a 1,000 yard season on the ground a year ago. The team returns all three of their starting receivers from a year ago in Xavier Smith, Jah’Marae Sheread and David Manigo. The offensive line unit will reportedly only be able to field seven offensive linemen on Saturday, creating a major talent for a group that was set to replace some major pieces there to begin with.

Defensively, the Rattlers were one of the best in the FCS a year ago and return some of their biggest standouts from a year ago. The team returns the Buck Buchanan Award winner, an award given to the best defensive player in the FCS each year, in pass rusher Isaiah Land, but he will not be eligible for this game according to Posey. The linebacking corps is the probably the least star studded position on the defense, but they have two veterans that will start in the middle for them. In the defensive backfield, the team loses standout safety Markquese Bell, but return do-it-all corner BJ Boehler and add Iowa State transfer Kym’Mani King, who will play nickel.

The special teams unit is a dangerous one led by Sheread, who led all of Division I in punt return average a year ago. The team also boasts one of the best punters at the FCS level in Chris Faddoul and an all-conference kicker in Jose Romo-Martinez.

Team Stats (2021)

Tar Heels

Off. PPG: 35.2 (T-19th)

Off. PYPG: 255.7 (42nd)

Off. RYPG: 212.9 (T-18th)

Off. TYPG: 468.8 (10th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 43.3% (38th)

Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 94.0 (116th)

Sacks Allowed: 49.0 (128th)

Def. PPG: 32.1 (105th)

Def. PYPG: 238.0 (T-83rd)

Def. RYPG: 180.0 (98th)

Def. TYPG: 418.0 (T-95th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 42.0% (97th)

Sacks: 29.0 (T-60th)

Interceptions: 11 (T-46th)

Turnover Margin: +1 (T-57th)

Penalties Per Game: 7.3 (T-109th)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 69.2 (118th)

Florida A&M (all rankings are FCS rankings)

Off. PPG: 27.8 (47th)

Off. PYPG: 221.8 (51st)

Off. RYPG: 159.2 (41st)

Off. TYPG: 380.9 (44th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 38.6% (59th)

Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 76.0 (84th)

Sacks Allowed: 15.0 (17th)

Def. PPG: 17.0 (10th)

Def. PYPG: 183.6 (17th)

Def. RYPG: 94.7 (9th)

Def. TYPG: 278.2 (10th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 32.5% (21st)

Sacks: 42.0 (4th)

Interceptions: 13 (26th)

Turnover Margin: +11 (7th)

Penalties Per Game: 8.9 (123rd)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 85.2 (123rd)

Injury Report

Tar Heels

OUT- British Brooks (lower leg), Ja’Qurious Conley (knee), Antoine Green (collarbone), Jahlil Taylor (lower body)

QUEST- Lejond Cavazos (lower body)

Florida A&M

OUT- Isaiah Land (eligibility)

QUEST- Jah’Marae Sheread (foot)

Projected Starting Lineups

Tar Heels Offense

QB#10 Drake Maye, RFr.

RB#26 D.J. Jones, Jr.

WR# 5 J.J. Jones, So.

WR# 2 Gavin Blackwell, RFr.

WR#11 Josh Downs, So.

TE#88 Kamari Morales, Jr.

LT#72 Asim Richards, Sr.

LG#63 Ed Montilus, Sr,

C#65 Corey Gaynor, Sr.

RG#76 William Barnes, Sr. OR #52 Jonathan Adorno, So.

RT#75 Spencer Rolland, Sr. OR #76 William Barnes, Sr. Defense

NOSE#51 Raymond Vohasek, Sr. OR #98 Kevin Hester Jr., Jr.

3-TECH# 8 Myles Murphy, Jr.

END#10 Des Evans, Jr.

JACK# 7 Noah Taylor, Sr. OR #17 Chris Collins, Sr.

MIKE#23 Power Echols, So.

WILL#33 Cedric Gray, Jr.

CB# 1 Tony Grimes, Jr.

BS#27 Giovanni Biggers, Sr.

FS# 9 Cam’Ron Kelly, Sr.

CB#14 Dontae Balfour, RFr. OR # 3 Storm Duck, Jr.

STAR#16 DeAndre Boykins, So. Special Teams

K#98 Noah Burnette, So.

KOS#95 Jonathan Kim, Sr.

P#91 Ben Kiernan, Sr.

LS#61 Drew Little, Sr.

H#91 Ben Kiernan, Sr.

KR#28 Omarion Hampton, Fr.

PR#11 Josh Downs, Jr.

Florida A&M Offense

QB# 8 Jeremy Moussa, Sr.

RB#23 Terrell Jennings, Jr.

WR (X)#85 David Manigo, Sr.

WR (Y)#19 Xavier Smith, Sr.

WR (Z)#83 Darian Oxendine, Jr.

TE#81 Kamari Young, Jr.

H-BACK# 0 Jeremiah Pruitte, Jr.

LT#61 Jalen Goss, Sr.

LG#77 Cesar Reyes, So.

C#64 Dariyon Weeden, Jr. OR #56 Bryan Crawford, Sr.

RG#69 TJ Lee, So.

RT#76 Cameron Covin, Sr. Defense

DE#95 Abu Bangura, Sr.

DT#98 Stanley Mentor, Sr.

NG#92 Gentle Hunt, So.

FANG#57 Justin Cooks, Sr.

MLB#27 Nadarius Fagan. Sr.

SLB# 0 Isaiah Major, Jr.

FCB#11 BJ Bohler, Sr.

ROVER# 3 Kendall Bohler, So.

FS# 1 Lovie Jenkins, Jr.

BCB# 2 Jawan Morgan, Jr.

NICKEL# 4 Kym’ Mani King, Jr. Special Teams

K#42 Jose Romo-Martinez, Sr.

P#43 Chris Faddoul, Sr.

LS#38 Lawrence Martinez, So.

KR#19 Xavier Smith, Sr.

PR#19 Xavier Smith, Sr.

Game Information

Location: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC

Time: 8:15 PM

TV: ACC Network

Radio: Tar Heel Sports Network (check local affiliates)


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